Do We Need It All?

Virginia needs to rethink the way it sets its funding priorities

The ongoing debate on transportation has centered on how much building we should fund. Virtual “wish lists” have been established by practically every agency that would have a role in planning or building, from VDOT to the various local metropolitan planning organizations (MPO). Given the current transportation stalemate one question remains to be asked: Do we need it all? Do we really need to build everything the planners say we need?

As the General Assembly struggles with the new budget, this is an important question that deserves an honest answer. What if we could solve our congestion woes by building only half what the planners tell us we need to? Or even a quarter? One thing is certain: We need more roads and highways to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century – but do we need every penny that the planners say we do? Could these wish lists be just that: wish lists that include projects that will do little for congestion relief?

Too often we spend our limited resources on projects that will do little if anything to ease congestion. If we spent the resources we have today in the right way, and build transportation projects in the right places, we could relieve congestion for far less than what the “experts” are suggesting.

One of the worst commutes in Virginia is Fredericks- burg to Washington, D.C. While the MPO has made some calls for widening I-95 and other choke points within their planning area, much of the $2.1 billion the MPO wants to spend over the next 20 years would be spent on transit and other non-road capacity projects including bike paths and pedestrian facilities.

Given this one example, we should be taking a deeper look at our long-range plans throughout the state. What do these plans actually expect to accomplish? How do the experts decide which projects make the cut? Is the plan more of a wish list or a legitimate approach to removing congestion? We ought to focus on the critical and necessary projects and let the “nice to haves” wait for another day or simply left on the shelf.

Relieving congestion needs to be the highest priority when considering projects and options. Among the many considerations that VDOT uses to rank projects and decide which ones to move forward with include putting projects in “economically disadvantaged areas” to stimulate economic development. In addition, VDOT identifies “recommendations that include provisions for other modes of travel such as bicycle/pedestrian facilities” and notes that these are “favored” because “they reduce reliance on single occupant vehicles.”

When was the last time a commuter from Fredericksburg walked or rode their bike to Arlington for work?

While economically depressed areas need roads too, we shouldn’t spend limited dollars in areas that won’t help relieve the Commonwealth’s congestion burden. Furthermore, we should choose only projects that will have a real, measurable impact toward congestion relief. This generally means no bicycle or pedestrian paths.

There is precedent for this move. Atlanta, with one of the nation’s worst congestion problems, launched a “Congestion Mitigation Task Force” that, among other things, passed resolutions raising the weight placed on congestion relief from 11 percent to 70 percent in project selection. Further, Texas’s state and local governments are assessing the impact of congestion on their economies and setting specific congestion reduction targets—using project selection as the primary driver to achieving those ends.

The Commonwealth’s limited resources need to be spent where the benefits are the greatest—where we move more people and goods. Current transportation plans place too much focus on projects that do little to relieve congestion. Too much money is poured into transit-related activities that are unlikely to affect growing congestion; except perhaps only make it worse as money is diverted away from road building.

Upwards of half the transportation dollars spent in the U.S. are spent on transit, which serves about five percent of the commuters. Significant progress can be made if we simply altered our spending decisions — more funds should go to projects that benefit more commuters.

Given this and the continued need to reform or “fix” VDOT, one must seriously question the need for additional taxes. If relieving congestion is the real goal in the current budget battle, we can come a lot closer to solving that problem for a lot less money than what the “transportation experts” are saying. Relieving congestion for less should be the goal that everyone can support.

Geoffrey F. Segal is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation. This column was originally written for the Bacon’s Rebellion. An archive of Segal’s work is available here and Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here.